Worth A Look: 23.75%
Pretty Bad: 12.5%
Total Crap: 15%
4 reviews, 56 user ratings
by Scott Weinberg
Ah yes, 'Universally Reviled Movies,' one of my favorite topics of conversation. Movies like "The Last Action Hero" and "Ishtar" and "Heaven's Gate" and "1941" and "Howard the Duck"...and "Popeye." In one very specific way, movies are a whole lot like people: slap one with a really bad reputation and they're bound for a miserable shelf life. Movies like that are often met with snarling contempt, even by those who've never even seen 'em!The point is not necessarily whether or not the above titles are "bad movies" (obviously each viewer can decide that for themself), but that a certain handful of movies are doomed to never get a fair shake just because of, well, their reputations as crap. I mean, c'mon... Howard the Duck is a pretty awful movie.
"Most people who 'hate' this movie haven't seen it in 20+ years. Boo."
But some of these movies have infamy heaped upon them when it's totally unearned and undeserved. I believe that one such example is Robert Altman's 1980 adaptation of Popeye. Based on the legendary comic strip by E.C. Segar, Altman's Popeye made waves right after Richard Donner's superlative Superman hit the screens, but well before a time in which you'd find a new comic-book-adaptation opening at the multiplex every single weekend. Yet Popeye is one of the strangest, goofiest and most source-material-faithful examples of comic-book filmmaking you're every likely to see. And yes, it's very...weird. But when did "weird" become a bad thing in and of itself?
Since I am admittedly a lifelong admirer of the movie, I've done my fair share of research on this somewhat infamous little flick. First let's dispel a few nasty rumors...
Myth #1: Popeye was a bomb, a stinker, a box office failure that sucked big bucks from the combined coffers of Paramount and Disney.
Untrue. Unless the ridiculously reliable BoxOfficeMojo.com is lying to me, Popeye grossed just under $50 million in North American box office. In 1980. Which means if you adjust that number to fit today's box office parameters, Popeye is still a pretty big hit. Granted, the movie was seen as inordinately expensive for its day (indeed more expensive than either studio anticipated), but what comic-book adaptation isn't an expensive prospect? The bottom line is this: Popeye was not a "bomb". It was in the black by 1981 and has been turning a tidy profit for about 25 years.
(Please don't think I'm saying that just it turned a profit that it's automatically a GOOD movie; I'm just trying to clear up one widespread fallacy about Popeye that's always irked me.)
Myth #2: That nobody likes the thing.
Up until this swanky new intranet thing was invented, I might have agreed with that myth. Indeed I was the only person I knew who owned both the Popeye VHS and the soundtrack cassette. But it only takes about five minutes of web searches before you realize that Popeye has a rather strong and vocal cult fanbase. I suspect that Paramount's recent DVD release of the movie will reignite some nostalgia-based goodwill for Popeye and perhaps it will find a few new fans as well. I hope that's the case, anyway. It's unlikely that this generally unloved movie will ever earn a 2-disc Special Edition treatment.
Myth #3: That Robin Williams pretty much hates this movie, his big screen debut.
Only half-true. Robin's first movie was actually Can I Do It Til I Need Glasses?, a silly skit compilation thingie. The first part does seem to be true; Robin doesn't seem to have fond memories of his times on the Popeye set. Were I ever to interview the singular Mr. Williams, I hope he'll be prepared for a lot of Popeye questions.
Enough with the myths. Here are the facts as filtered through my brain until they become opinion:
Popeye is a gloriously weird, unremittingly off-kilter, quietly clever and altogether brilliant big-budget, art-flick, comedy, musical, period piece, character study, comic-book adaptation...curiosity piece. It's pervasively and endearing strange, coated with staggeringly odd set designs and quirky character touches. It's both respectful of Segar's source material and willful enough to infuse some of the most goofily enjoyable music ever brought to the silver screen. Popeye brings comic-book characters to life in a way that CGI technology cannot.
Robin Williams is, of course, Popeye the Sailor Man. Recently arrived at the ramshackle seaside village of Sweethaven, Popeye is met with suspicion and outright disdain. Chancing upon the Oyl residence, Pop finds himself a comfortable (if not very friendly) boarding house to hole up in. It's here that we meet the roster of characters best known from Segar's strips and hundreds of Fleischer cartoons: the beanpole Olive Oyl, the penny-pinching glutton Wimpy, the adopted and adorable Swee'Pea, the blustery and barrel-chested Bluto...and about a half-dozen others.
Some say Robert Altman (Nashville, The Player) was absolutely the wrong guy to direct a live-action comic strip, yet it's the director's focus on the eccentricities of Sweethaven and its numerous kooks that give Popeye its stamp of true originality. Oh, and there's the songs.
Yes, Popeye is a musical. This fact is one that may have helped to give the movie such a black eye over the years. Musicals were NOT let's say "cool" in the 1970s and 1980s. At all. Stuff like Paint Your Wagon and, ultimately, Xanadu had all but demolished the Movie Musical, and it wasn't until 2002's Moulin Rouge! that the genre was truly resurrected. (Yeah, I know: Little Shop of Horrors is an exception to the rule, but what of A Chorus Line: The Movie?)
Divorced from nostalgia and forced to re-evaluate the numerous musical numbers found within Popeye? I still love what I see. There's a gloomy sarcasm to the opening tune, in which the population of Sweethaven exclaim how "God must love us" while they awaken their decrepit little village for yet another day. There's an effusive little-girl-silliness to Olive Oyl's rather simplistic "He Needs Me" ditty; a Big Bully Bluster to Bluto's "I'm Mean" that says nothing yet defines the character perfectly...
Yes, many of the songs found in Popeye are quite silly and more than a little, well, goofy. And I suspect that songwriter Harry Nilsson knew precisely what he was doing.
Even among Popeye's biggest detractors (you'll find hundreds of them; just ask) you'll find a begrudging respect for the ensemble of actors brought on board. Williams, despite his alleged displeasure with the movie, does a fantastic job as the squinky-eyed, ever-grumblin', swollen-armed Sailor Man; Ray Walston pops up towards the end and offers some colorful seadog silliness; Shelley Duvall basically IS Olive Oyl, in a terrifically goofball performance. The background is populated by a handful of great "Oh yeah THAT guy!" character actors such as Donovan Scott (as Olive's little brother Castor), Donald Moffat (as the greedy tax man), Paul Dooley (as the burger-lovin' Wimpy) and Richard Libertini as a jittery nut. (Plus keep an eye open for folks like Linda Hunt, Bill Irwin and Dennis Franz!)
Trying to objectively "review" a movie that you've loved since the age of 9 is no easy task. I can clearly see why many people dislike Popeye. It's too weird and totally built with oddly-shaped pieces; it's kinda grim and sedate and there's not even all that much spinach to be found. But to me Popeye represents something unique: the adaptation of a well-known comic into something respectful of its lineage yet with an entirely unique approach to the material. And Altman's reward for undertaking such a challenging approach? Snickers throughout the decades, as in "Robert Altman directed that Popeye movie???"
Or maybe it's just that Popeye was that one movie that everyone loved to hate, which only made me want to defend it that much more."Popeye" might not be a "brilliant film" by most definitions of the term, but I could argue, well into the night if need be, that brilliant is precisely what this movie is. Kooky and odd and brilliant in the most warped way imaginable.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1418&reviewer=128
originally posted: 05/17/04 03:53:36